A Day on a Malawian Executive Bus

Woke up way too early to catch this bus to Lilongwe. My biggest mistake in Malawi is always assuming that anything will happen on schedule. Patience is a virtue, but waiting is a way of life here.

5:30 am, the African sky is so close that you almost could reach out and touch it. As I walk to the bus stop, an elongated cloud like smoke from a brush fire stretches from Mount Soche and completely envelopes Ndirande Mountain. The streets are mostly empty, but there are still signs of life. People are slowly arriving at the hospital for work and for treatment, and the minibuses have already started hawking for passengers.

I sit in the side of the M1 waiting for the bus and get stared at by commuters for the better part of an hour. A newspaper guy sells me today’s copy of the Nation, where I get to read all about Presidents Bingu’s public calls for the youth to violently control his critics. Fortunately, Malawians are outraged that the country is slowly sliding back to the miserable days of Banda’s repressive dictatorial regime. The President has gone mad. He won’t sleep in the Presidential mansion because he claims there are ghosts there and becomes more and more paranoid on a daily basis.

President “His Excellency Ngawazi Professor Bingu Wa Mutharika” just put out a book that he’s been pushing on state TV for the past week. It’s ridiculous really. The book costs $50, the equivalent to two months wage for the average Malawian. “The African Dream: From Poverty to Prosperity” is 1000 pages long and is written entirely in English. Most Malawians couldn’t even read it if they wanted to. The guy at the book store just laughs hysterically when I ask about it. The President is mostly thought of as a joke these days.

I board the bus. I’m lucky today. I get a double seat to myself, but am painfully subjected to Kenny Rogers best. Inexplicably, country music is vastly popular here.

It’s 6:30 a.m. and already the streets are filled. The street vendors are already set up and doing business. Malawi has begun its work day. In the west, industrialization has conditioned us to efficiently maximize output in the shortest time possible. In Malawi, people work from sunrise to sunset, not wanting to miss that potential $.30 that can be made from selling a bunch of bananas. In a country where even yearly school fees of $10 are an out of reach of most of the population, every cent counts.

8:00 a.m. the bus meal arrives. At first, I don’t know what to do with it. It’s a tiny chicken leg and some type of sandwich in a plastic wrapped Styrofoam tray. I’m afraid to eat it, but I brave a variety of enteric diseases and bust it open anyway. It’s an onion sandwich and a cold chicken leg, which reminds me of those cheap, cold bentos you get at Japanese convenience stores. The ones that people get food poisoning from.

8:15 a.m. The police don’t have much better to do, so we are subjected to a search of the vehicle at a stop. Police board and make sure everyone is sitting while women outside try to sell us okra and eggs. Produce here is amazing. It’s all organically grown and taken to the market only when absolutely ready for sale. No early picked green tomatoes here.

10 a.m. The in-flight entertainment has ended. We’ve just passed through powerless rural villages little changed since before there was ever power in Malawi. Watching Hollywood against a backdrop of impoverished Malawi should be strange, but I kept having flashbacks to the incredible divide between West Coast television shows and the realities of Mississippi. No wonder I grew up such a mess. I really believed that life in the outside world was like that. I bet the Malawians who have access to TV’s and the amazing pay DVD theaters believe it, too. It must make them feel like total shit.

I will never ever use a restroom on an African bus again.

11:30 a.m. Arrive in Lilongwe and immediately get ripped off on a taxi fare. So stupid, I should know better by now.

4:30 Back on the bus. The same bad BET videos are running all over again, this time in reverse. At least I know what Justin Bieber looks like now. Youth culture is miserable. Has it always been this shallow? I guess people like to watch beautiful people crash and burn. Mostly, it makes me want to kill myself.

5:00 “Dinner” appears. I haven’t eaten anything all day besides the tiny chicken leg and the onion sandwich. It a single biscuit and an egg roll. It’s delicious, though cold. Hunger will make anything seem delicious. If there’s anywhere that I’ll get intestinal worms, it’s here.

6:15 “S.W.A.T. Detroit” has started on the video screen. It’s odd to see home on a Malawian bus. I don’t see how anybody on the bus can understand what’s going on in this movie. It’s so riddled with common images of Detroit, US race politics and placement advertisements for guns that it must be incomprehensible to the passengers, who are primarily old ladies. The bumps on the highway are so bad that the DVD keeps skipping. The stewardess restarts it a couple times then gives up and restarts Kenny Rogers best.

7:30 We stop in Ntcheu. Every couple of hours the bus will stop and allow the driver to get up and walk around. Everyone on the bus gets off and we’re immediately mobbed by the same okra selling women as earlier, but now they are not women, but teenage girls. Some have oranges and boiled peanuts. A guy tried to sell me 20 pounds of potatoes for $.60. I give the girls $.30 each for 5 oranges and a pound of boiled peanuts. The okra girl is dejected. It looks like she’s desperate to make a sale. In my broken Chichewa, I try to explain to her that I love okra, but I have no kitchen. I probably should have just bought them anyway.

I look around and realize that I’m in the middle of one of those trading centers that I’m not supposed to go to. According to white people, a guy will be killed on site at the trading centers. I take a walk, knowing that this is likely my only chance. It’s amazing, all manner of fried and grilled meats, fried potatoes, ice cream, batteries, drinks and candy stands… I consider just getting take out dinner from here, but the bus is calling us to get back on.

8:20 Feeling better after the boiled peanuts and oranges, but the narrow seat is giving me cramps. On top of that, the heat is fermenting the urine in the toilet and the bus is beginning to reak. Kenny Rogers, however, is far more torturous.

8:40 Reach Blantyre. We can barely get off the bus because of the mob of taxi drivers. When they see a white guy, they get even more excited. I bark at one guy trying to block my way and opt for an older guy sitting on the ground. I ask him how much to Kip’s (local Pakistani grease proprietor and ice cream mogul) and then to home. He tries to overcharge me, I walk away, the price drops. Unlike before, I am determined not to get ripped off on a taxi fare again.

I will also never again order the “large” fried fish from Kip’s.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

6 responses to “A Day on a Malawian Executive Bus”

  1. Delu Mbula says :

    which bus did you catch? You are confusing me (Malawi resident). The only buses with a restroom in Malawi are the “coachline” buses yet coachlines do not stop at Ntcheu for one to have as much time of walk as you claim except at Zalewa Road Block in Blantyre. Furthermore the coachline does not stop every hour of the travel, it only stops at Zalewa for police check.

    As much as I agree with you that much our services need a lot to satisfy the citizens, your reporting is flawed and bent to potray an exaggerated negative picture.

    I hope you know what a welbeing is here. while you groan over a chicken leg and the onion sandwich, someone appreciates it to be a delicacy. By the end of the day both of you fends for a restroom and yearns for the next food.

    Report responsibly, do not belittle Africas efforts. You are better in other aspects and wanting in many of your ways too.

  2. Pete Larson says :

    I took the AXA bus from Blantyre to Lilongwe and yes, it did stop at Ntcheu for quite some time. I don’t know. Maybe the routes have changed since then.

    I am well-aware what life is like in Malawi. I meant no offense to anyone. In fact, reading this post again, I don’t see what’s so offensive about it but I am very sorry that it offended you.

    I reported what occurred on the bus exactly as I saw it. Perhaps I should have repressed my observations? There WAS a chicken leg and an onion sandwich. It was questionable (most food I’ve eaten in Malawi is not questionable at all). Kenny Rogers WAS playing on the bus. The bathroom WAS, well, a bathroom in a bus.

    The AXA bus was really no different than any American bus, with the exception of the suspicious chicken leg and free sodas. We don’t get those here.

    Believe me, I love Malawi. I could easily have written a similar article about a bus ride in the United States. I am sorry that it offended you.

  3. Pete Larson says :

    In fact, in the article, I very clearly praise the boiled peanuts and oranges that I bought in Ntcheu and the people selling them.

    They were far superior to the chicken leg. The AXA bus would do well do abandon the chicken leg and provide boiled peanuts and oranges.

  4. Ree says :

    Haha – I’m reading this three years after your original post. Interesting and amusing observations. I’m Malawian too and don’t take any offense at your post. Malawians can sometimes be overly sensitive :). You’re braver than I am – I wouldn’t buy cooked food from those vendors for fear of those “enteric diseases”. Perhaps I just have a weak tummy! Keep writing.

  5. Mbuchindele says :

    Why did you have to go there if all you can do is compare Malawi and Japan? U r a professor you should know better that what you like is not what I like. You write as if a chicken leg since didnot appeal to you, it didnot to everybody. Did any of the Malawians in the bus complain about it? Stay in Nagasaki and we stay in Malawi, right? U always think u r superior, but as professor u should know better that what u value most, we don’t. So annoying your article. Who cares if you will not use coach toilet in Africa anymore?

  6. Pete Larson says :

    It is interesting that you are so offended by my reporting on the chicken leg and onion sandwich. It was of poor quality and poor quality food is available everywhere. As I said before, the boiled peanuts and fruit I bought on the street were far superior.

    But this belies the point. I have a question for you. Is Malawian to be left free from criticism? AXA being a private bus company should be held to a high standard by even Malawians, otherwise nothing improves.

    The sandwich was bad. The bathrooms were a disaster. How hard is it to clean a bathroom? As for superiority, well, go to Japan and check out their buses. They are superior to AXA’s buses. The reason for this is because the companies which own those buses do simple things like clean the bathroom on a regular basis.

    This is the problem. It is a generalization, but it often seems to me that many Africans believe that they should be left free from criticism. It is this type of thinking which produces a deplorable state of services from both the private and public sectors in many African countries, including Malawi. How can people be held accountable when they are free from criticism?

    I’m sorry you are annoyed, but the awful state of the privately owned AXA bus company should be far more annoying to you.

    For the record, also, I am not from Japan. I am from the United States.

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